Judith Martin is watching us. For almost thirty years, as "Miss Manners," she has written on etiquette, offering advice on everything from befuddling forks to greedy brides and grooms. Her twice-weekly column originated in the Washington Post and is now syndicated. She has penned ten books, including Star-Spangled Manners, a historical study of etiquette in American democracy, and two novels.
Martin rejects insinuations that 'etiquette' is snobbish, stuffy, or elitist. "It's the language of human behavior," she says passionately, "in which you can express goodwill and friendliness and all kinds of attributes that make the stranger feel welcome. It smoothes over a great deal of uglier impulses with acceptable packaging."
The child of a U.N. economist, her upbringing in foreign capitals prepared Martin to understand differing manners and mores. "You become aware of manners as a cultural thing when you go abroad, because otherwise you think people are doing things 'in the natural way.' So I became aware at an early age that behavior was a cultural thing. It was fascinating."
After graduating from Wellesley College, she joined the Washington Post, covering social events before becoming a film and theater critic.
"Etiquette," she says with a laugh, "is drama on a larger stage."
Her columns are beloved for their dry wit and unflinching attention to detail. And in spite of taking to task overindulgent parents and gift-hustling hosts, she feels that American manners are on the upswing.
"There's a huge interest in formality," she explains."That's why prom teenagers go bananas and people holding weddings get so excited." But looking beyond black limousines and evening clothes, Martin sees more substantive success. "The outward expression of bigotry and hate is no longer acceptable in this country," she notes. "I'm not saying we've gotten rid of bigotry--I only wish--but the expression of it is no longer accepted. We have the amusement of watching people who don't realize this--politicians and others--self-destruct by not realizing that this is no longer acceptable to disparage other people.
"It's not acceptable in general public if people make bigoted remarks. That's tremendous progress.
"When you think how various groups--women, African Americans, gays, and so on--were routinely put down and insulted and people got away with it, it's an enormous advance that this is no longer tolerated."
She says she'll retire "when everyone behaves," and stands firm against the flouting of some hard-and-fast, albeit arbitrary, rules, such as wearing black for weddings. "Most etiquette is arbitrary, but that doesn't make it any less important," she insists. "Wearing black still looks very sad to a lot of people. Therefore, the weddings look as if they're in mourning, which is kind of pathetic. But if everyone felt that black is a festive color, it would change."
And if it does change, will Miss Manners write a column, and let us know? "Yes," she says. "I will."